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Hillary--yes She Can

Hillary Clinton is not a great orator. She speaks with mechanical precision, clear and direct and but usually bereft of emotion. She varies her volume, never her pace or her tone. She can deliver a exquisitely detailed disquisition on virtually any topic of import. But she can’t deliver a rousing pep talk or sermon, any more than she can just chat.

But sometimes a great speech doesn’t require great speaking. All it requires are the right words, delivered by the right person in the right setting. And that's what the Democratic convention got from Clinton tonight.

Her mission was straightforward: embrace Barack Obama, attack John McCain, and remind people of the Democratic agenda. She accomplished that and she did it without ambiguity.

She declared herself an Obama supporter in the very first paragraph, the very last paragraph, and many times in between. She laid out the stakes of the election in no uncertain terms: "Nothing less than the fate of our nation and the future of our children hang in the balance." She painted a dismal--and, in my opinion, accurate--picture of what a Republican administration would bring in the next four years:

More economic stagnation …and less affordable health care.

More high gas prices …and less alternative energy.

More jobs getting shipped overseas …and fewer jobs created here.

More skyrocketing debt ...home foreclosures …and mounting bills that are crushing our middle class families.

More war . . . less diplomacy.

More of a government where the privileged come first …and everyone else comes last.

I’m guessing some people will complain that the balance of the speech wasn’t right--that she spent too much time recounting the broad Democratic agenda and not enough specifically making the case for Obama over McCain.

But the recitation of the Democratic agenda was necessary and, to my ears, welcome. (Naturally, I paritcularly appreciated the emphasis on universal health care.) Obama may have literally thousands of words on his website detailing his every idea down (roughly) to the dollar, but too many voters think he--and the Democrats generally--don't offer real solutions. Clinton used her reputation for wonkish earnestness to fight that misperception.

Besides, it's not as if that many people heard the speech in full. Most of the country will hear or read about it second-hand, through summaries in the media. What really counts, then, are the takeaway lines. And Clinton gave several:

No way. No how. No McCain.  Barack Obama is my candidate. And he must be our President.

It makes sense that George Bush and John McCain will be together next week in the Twin Cities. Because these days they’re awfully hard to tell apart.

We don’t need four more years...of the last eight years. 

Clinton mentioned her husband’s presidency once. And I recall wincing when that moment came--since, like most people I know, I’m not terribly happy with Bill Clinton these days. But his time in office remains one of the best selling points Democrats have. It's a reminder that Democrats fight for an economy that benefits everybody--which is precisely what the voters say they want. And for all the enmity the former president has inspired in the political class, he remains popular with the country as a whole. To ignore that would be foolish. 

It’s true, as my colleague and friend Jonathan Chait has pointed out, that Hillary did not praise Obama in personal terms. And, yes, that would have been nice. But how much would it have helped? Obama’s problem here is that many older white voters simply don’t identify with him--most likely, I assume, because of his race. And it’s a problem he’ll have to fix himself when he gets the spot in prime time on Thursday. (Yes, I think he can do it. In fact, I think he will.)  

One last note: At least on MSNBC, the pundits are eating this up. I couldn't type fast enough to keep up with Keith Olbermann's superlatives. Chris Matthews was gushing. The best Pat Buchanan could do was to acknowledge the speech's success and use it as fodder for his argument that she should have been Obama's running mate. But his colleagues would have none of this. And that's a good sign, since it's the media that has kept the silly disunity storyline going.

Update: Over at the Stump, my percpetive colleague Mike Crowley notes that Clinton never stated that Obama was qualified to be commander-in-chief from day one. I agree that's a failing, although--like him--I wonder if maybe that's what Bill will do tomorrow night. Tonight's theme was supposed to be about prosperity, tomorrow's about security, so that would make sense.

Also missing from the speech, as a friend pointed out, was abortion. But there was no shortage of appeals targetting women voters.

On the other hand, after watching part of the speech on re-broadcast, I think the delivery was better--more natural and more passionate--than I thought the first time.  

--Jonathan Cohn